SLAPP–Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation Suits

With the awakening environmental movement in the United States, there has been an increase of public criticism of the actions of developers or corporations in their exploitation or destruction of the environment for financial gain. In addition, many environmental statutes allow any person to bring a lawsuit to enforce their provisions or to request that a developer or corporation not be allowed permits that are necessary under the statutes, for example, to be able to fill a wetland or to discharge a certain amount of a pollutant into a river. This increased criticism and litigation against big business in the environmental arena led to the invention of the SLAPP suit, the shorthand for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.” As the name suggests, SLAPP suits are designed to intimidate litigants or critics into ending their lawsuits or criticisms out of fear of huge legal costs and being thrust into the public eye.

Because it is not possible to sue on the grounds that a person is properly exercising his or her statutory rights or because he or she is making a good faith criticism, SLAPP suits are usually based on defamation, libel, interference with business relations, or allegations that the SLAPP plaintiff is being deprived of its property rights in some way. While it is possible that a SLAPP plaintiff might have a valid cause of action, for example, if the citizen suit was brought merely to delay a construction product and add to its costs, or if criticism was truly defamatory, SLAPP suits are generally groundless. Nevertheless, SLAPP defendants may have to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees before a SLAPP suit proceeds to the point where a court determines that it has no foundation and dismisses it.

Because of the generally baseless nature of SLAPP suits, they are widely perceived as imposing a chilling effect on criticism, often of big business and government, and a violation of one’s First Amendment rights to petition the government–in the words of the Constitution–for the “redress of grievances.” SLAPP suits are disfavored by the courts, and over 20 states have passed laws designed to identify SLAPP suits and dispose of them expeditiously in order to minimize their costs to unfairly sued SLAPP defendants. Under some statutes, costs and attorney’s fees may be assessed against an unsuccessful SLAPP suit plaintiff. This helps decrease the financial damage to those who bring valid criticisms and lawsuits as well as deter future SLAPP suits. Nevertheless, anti-SLAPP statutes have been criticized for failing to do enough to eliminate the economic disincentive to speak out on environmental issues.